07 January 2021

"A country deliberately founded on a good idea"

Those who violently broke into the United States Capitol yesterday may have actually felt that they were Patriots. That's how they they were addressed by their idol, the president, and his accomplices. (That's how I was addressed in the 1,929 e-mails I received over these past months from donaldtrump.com.)

What is this patriotism? As a grateful immigrant, I have some views on this question, but they're certainly not original to me. Once again I turn to the journalist John Gunther, whose introduction to his book Inside U.S.A. (1946) calls the USA "a country deliberately founded on a good idea." Our founding documents make that good idea clear: we were all created equal; and our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are derived NOT from a ruler's indulgence or from social rank, but irrevocably granted by our Creator! Abraham Lincoln expressed in the simplest terms how such a free people are to be governed: through a "government of the people, by the people, for the people...."

Every aspect of this "good idea" has vulnerabilities, and our nation has tested them all. Do we really believe that we're all created equal, or can we cut some corners to the advantage of those we identify with most? Can we really govern ourselves, or are there some tacit standards of wealth, education, good connections, or other badges of entitlement that represent shortcuts to power? When our inevitable conflicts arise, do we have trustworthy mechanisms to discern justice, or do the loudest or most resourceful communicators prevail? Do we prioritize the fair distribution of opportunities to pursue happiness, or do we (as John Fea suggests) rely on the manipulative power of a mythical nostalgia? 

The conflict that came to a head yesterday -- and certainly threatens to return -- is a story of broken faith. These patriots do not appear to recognize either the "good idea" of equality, or our nation's judicial system. In November 2020, "we the people" elected a new president through the tested mechanisms of state-based elections; and irregularities were investigated and adjudicated through the courts. Against these routine and regular processes of self-government, the president and his co-conspirators flooded the public arena with falsehoods and slanders that were so far-fetched that they often could not even be submitted in good order to an actual court. Trump's attempts to prevent the peaceful transfer of power (the glory of any democracy) were presented to us as grievances, often with obvious links to white people's fear, nostalgia, and blood mythology. Apparently, anyone who shares these grievances was entitled to bash their way into "our house," the Capitol, and sabotage the regular order of our self-government as it attempted to implement the people's choice.

Why did I preface these thoughts by calling myself a "grateful immigrant"? I'm simply referring to the incredible magnetic power of Gunther's "good idea." Acknowledging the incongruity of all settlements from across the oceans having been imposed on this continent's first nations, this new country organized around our founding ideals was substantially built and populated by wave after wave of immigrants. Most of them, in the early years of the colonies and the new USA, were from places where wealth, aristocracy, or monarchy ruled. In Thomas Paine's words,

Every spot of the old world is overrun with oppression. Freedom hath been hunted round the globe. Asia, and Africa, have long expelled her--Europe regards her like a stranger, and England hath given her warning to depart. O! receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind.

Paine's portrait of the rest of the world is severely out of date, but the USA -- at least until recently -- continued to attract people like my own parents, who brought me here from war-scarred Europe and then had two more children born here. I still hear from former students in Russia who want my advice on resettling here. And, sadly, there are still places in the world where the USA represents, not just an opportunity for improvement, but a chance for survival.

The forces of fear and nostalgia, some daring to call themselves Christian, threaten to neutralize our "good idea," declaring that our country should no longer receive the fugitive nor prepare an asylum -- and they even call this new fear-based isolationism "patriotic." The resulting confusion weakens our own country, and gives great comfort to the leaders of countries that prefer to rule the old-fashioned way, reserving power and wealth to those who already have it, and assuring their populations that that is the way things work everywhere. As Anne Applebaum said, concerning yesterday's events,

Schadenfreude will be the dominant emotion in Moscow, Beijing, Tehran, Caracas, Riyadh, and Minsk. The leaders of those cities—men sitting in well-appointed palaces, surrounded by security guards—will enjoy the scenes from Washington, relishing the sight of the U.S. brought so low.

Americans are not the ones who will suffer most from the terrible damage that Trump and his enablers have done to the power of America’s example, to America’s reputation, and, more important, to the reputation of democracy itself. The callow insurrectionists who thought it would be amusing to break into the debating chambers might go to jail, but they will not pay any real price; neither will the conspiracy theorists who believed the president’s lies and flocked to Washington to act on them. Instead, the true cost will be borne by those other residents of Moscow, Beijing, Tehran, Caracas, Riyadh, and Minsk—the dissidents and the opponents, the would-be democrats who plan, organize, protest, and suffer, sacrificing their time and in some cases their life just because they want the right to vote, to live in a state governed by the rule of law, and to enjoy the things that Americans take for granted, and that Trump doesn’t value at all.

After yesterday, they will have one less source of hope, one less ally they can rely upon. The power of America’s example will be dimmer than it once was; American arguments will be harder to hear. American calls for democracy can be thrown back with scorn: You don’t believe in it anymore, so why should we?

During yesterday's melee, I saw a little alert on my computer screen, telling me that Russia's Dozhd' independent television network was covering events live at the Capitol. When I opened their coverage, the presenter in the Moscow studio was interviewing a Russian-speaking academic in the USA. He pointed out the similarities between the assault on the Capitol with the October 1993 crisis in Russia, featuring the confrontation between Yeltsin and the legislature. The presenter objected: "But that was Russia. This is the USA!!" These things don't happen here!

Here's another twist: On Twitter, Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Russia, commented on the Capitol attack: "Today was the worst day in American democracy in my lifetime. So angry. So sad." Among the responses he got was this comment in Russian:

People have an opinion. They express that opinion. It seems to me that it's better to rejoice that those people are not as passive as they are here. They are citizens, and not bumps on a log. Just think about it: there is a certain country, namely Russia, where the authorities tried to kill off their most outstanding political opponent, and NOBODY came out to protest. Your people are able to stand up for their positions. That's not a bad thing.

If actual massive perversions of the USA's electoral process had happened, I would cheer this comment, because in principle the writer is correct. So here is a case study of what happens when two countries are both trying to cope with public spaces flooded by lies ... in both cases from the leadership! I cannot answer for Russia, but in the USA, we citizens, not being bumps on a log, have another choice: get rid of the lying leadership.

Headline in RT: "Russia says American system ‘archaic’ and not up to ‘modern democratic standards’ after rioters raid Washington’s Capitol building."

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Honestly, does anyone actually still believe in a two-state future for Israel and Palestine?

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Breaking from my single-track tradition, I'm going to present some full-length blues programs of the pandemic era. Here's Kim Wilson with the Rhythm Scratchers:

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